Gar and I continued our animated pan-oceanic email chatting, simultaneously juggling various conversational threads as we ping-ponged a dozen messages back and forth daily. I wanted to do something nice for his birthday which occurred not long after my return, so I launched on the 1.5 to 2 week postal journey to NZ a Bluray disc he’d mentioned of Stephen Fry’s travels through America (I thought perhaps it’d provide additional enticement to consider a States visit during his July semester break) and a little homemade card which he kindly professed to like, despite it being primarily rendered in stick figures and copious amounts of glitter. Unfortunately I’d completely forgotten that U.S. disc systems are incompatible with those overseas – d’oh! Pending the gift package’s [late] arrival, I also called to convey happy wishes at breakfast-time on his birthday, leading to a few confused moments of cognitive dissonance as a bafflingly long series of numbers on the caller ID resolved itself into the faint and slightly delayed voice of someone he’d never heard before via telephone.  It was slightly awkward, but I was giddily happy to briefly hear his voice and cute accent again – it was rather mind-boggling, too, to be able to call so far away on my little mobile phone!

I also planned some festivities for the birthdays a few weeks later of myself and Bill, who I’ve known for a decade now, our friendship forged in the white-slave Ormond Beach terror factory where we once worked together, with him as my underling; now he’s my writerly overlord at the awesome company for which we produce the nightly news. After years of envying his respectably-paid telecommuting job and ceaselessly haranguing him to be sure to pass on my resume if ever a position opened up there, he shut me up and earned my eternal gratitude by suggesting the company interview me when a senior writer decided to retire, and I was given a permanent position after a few months’ successful test-out as an independent contractor. In thanks, I’d promised to bring him to Florida and take him to Universal’s Harry Potter theme park, harkening back to the days in which we’d geek out each time J.K. Rowling released a new book in the series, racing each other to the end and discussing our impressions at work the next day, carefully tiptoeing around any spoilers. Our annual aging commemoration happily coincided with a time judged to be suitable weather-wise in Florida, as well as falling at a time of year likely to incur minimal hordes of theme-park attendant children (if such a thing can even be said to exist in Orlando). I invited local friends to come celebrate an unbirthday party at my fabulous ghetto estate once Bill arrived in town, and he and I hit Universal the following day.

We arrived shortly after the gates opened, and theme park aggravation commenced promptly at the parking toll plaza, where despite the posted prices, people seemed surprised that they should have money or another payment method ready to provide the attendants. Next came the enormous lines to pay the staggering admission ticket prices. Here no base prices were actually posted, only the not-so-subtle upsell to the several hundred dollar multi-park/multi-day options. We stood sweating in the heat, staring glazedly into space and occasionally shuffling a few steps forward (excellent practice for what the rest of our day would prove to be like). I had time to slink out of the line, wend my way back to a ladies room in the restaurant and nightclub Citywalk area, and rejoin Bill in the queue afterwards….. and still we waited. At the window finally, I inquired how much for admission to one park for one day. “Well, with the Mardi Gras parade and the Kelly Clarkson concert…” the woman started. “No, no, no,” I interrupted. “No extra stuff – just admission to Islands of Adventure,” I said firmly. Ninety bucks a pop. A credit card was duly handed over and, clutching our hard-won tickets, we raced to the next set of lines to inspect bags and be fingerprinted into the park itself.

We grabbed a map, wandering towards ‘Hogsmeade’ as we plotted our plan of attack. We both squealed with gleeful, wriggly excitement as the gates came into view – we’d been looking forward to this moment since the park’s initial construction was announced. And it was amazing. Everything looked just as it should (aside from the fake snow clinging to the crazily slanted rooftops, given the 80 degree heat): the pillared gates, the Hogwarts Express locomotive, the cobbly cottages, the window displays in Honeydukes candy shop, and the blazers, robes, and mufflers in all four House colors at Dervish and Banges. Mechanical gizmos whirred at Zonko’s Joke Shop; animatronic potted mandrakes screeched at the gardening supply store. There were wand stalls in the streets and refreshment stands selling pumpkin juice and Butterbeer. And best of all: there was Hogwarts itself, perched high on its cliff and guarded by dual boar statues, towers looming, perspective meticulously manipulated to create an impression of height and distance and mass. (It was most amusing when, later in the day, I watched a pigeon land on the upper castle walls, immediately giving lie to the optical tricks used: the castle walls were either in reality only about a foot high, or that happened to be a Godzilla-sized pigeon). If not for the throngs of other tourists – and boy, were they thronging… it was February: shouldn’t the kids have been in school, dagnabbit?? – it would have been perfect.

entrance to Hogsmeade

yep, there are the thronging throngs.

Bill and the Hogwarts Express

Roller-coasters always get the longest lines and it was still relatively early, so we made straight for the Dragon Challenge, a set of twin coasters converted from a prior park attraction and themed to take place during the Triwizard Tournament. All the rough rides require you to secure your belongings in lockers, free for a 90 minute period, with several locker banks situated near the entry of each particularly turbulent ride. However, you have to wait at an ATM-like console both to be assigned a locker and to retrieve your items, and since Murphy’s Law dictated that touch screens were a novel idea to many of the park goers, there was much impatient glaring over shoulders, watching in frustration as people tapped along slowly and ineffectually. The wait time wasn’t terrible for this one, perhaps 45 minutes, and we rode the red dragon first (each is slightly different – we ended up going back to do the blue one twice more throughout the day). Wow! I looooove roller coasters, and this one did not disappoint – a relatively long ride for a coaster, multiple upside down flips and whips with tons of g-forces… twisty and turny and sinewy just like its reptilian namesake.

We then girded our loins to wait for THE star attraction: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The wait time for this one was posted at a daunting 90 minutes, but the day wasn’t getting any younger, and the ride was a must-do. But just doing the wait-stand-shuffle in the heat and glare was unbelievably tedious and uncomfortable, trying to ignore the bleating of the adjacent teenaged girl who’d apparently become separated from her boyfriend and was loudly and repetitively entreating him via cell phone to just shove through the line to rejoin her and her girlfriend. (That phone call went on for at least half an hour; I fantasized vividly about grabbing the phone and beating her over the head with it). My back started to ache, my knees began to protest. I shifted my weight constantly, fanned myself with the increasingly crinkled map, sweated, sighed, shifted again, shuffled forward a bit —- over and over and over again.

After an hour of waiting we got close enough to the castle (and more banks of bag-stash lockers) to start seeing interesting things, and eventually were led in through the dungeons (housing the mirror of Erised); past the colorful jewel counters that keep track of House points; the [talking, animatronic] Sorting Hat; a hall of talking, moving portraits; the Pensieve in Dumbledore’s office and a holographic Dumbledore himself; and finally a holographic Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom (featuring a giant dragon skeleton) who exhort you to come sneak off with them to watch the Quidditch match, courtesy of the Floo Network.

the hogs of Hogwarts

the mirror of Erised

the House jewel counters

the portrait gallery

Dumbledore’s office

the Sorting Hat

You’re seated on benches for this ‘robocoaster,’ which uses a combination of projection screens and animatronics whilst maneuvering your bench by robotic arm along a track to simulate motion through the storyline. You are first sucked through the Floo Network to the top of the Astronomy Tower, where an escaped dragon is scratching clawholds through the roof and breathing fire, then fly behind the three broomsticked friends towards the Quidditch pitch via the Forbidden Forest (the arm flings you forward into a deep dive, over and under the bridges and towers of Hogwarts). The enormous spider Aragog pops out of the gloomy trees and spits venom at you (and you’re splashed with water) and as you hasten out of the forest  dizzily evade the thumping branches of the Whomping Willow. Finally at the game field, you whiz around with the Slytherin and Griffindor players but have to flee when Dementors begin to show up – Harry tries to lead you back towards the castle to safety, but you accidentally fall into the Chamber of Secrets and find yourself surrounded by Dementors (with fog and chilled air being blown on you). Harry dissipates the Dementors and you swerve madly through the collapsing rubble of the Chamber ‘til you return at last to your kickoff point in the Room of Requirement. You’re utterly immersed in the ride with so much sensory input and action going on you simply don’t know where to look, and the sensation of plummeting toward the Hogwarts grounds from its highest tower is thrillingly real. However, that said, the ride is also about two minutes long. So each minute you’ve sweltered, waiting outside, has earned you one second on the ride. A draconian exchange.

It would have been nice to do it again but there was zero chance of us waiting in that line again – in fact, despite being a presumptive low season, the lines everywhere were quite terrible: for the bathrooms, to get into the Three Broomsticks for overpriced pedestrian meals, even to get into the shops to simply have the opportunity to purchase expensive trip memorabilia (which Bill was obliged later in the evening to do for his sisters and nieces and nephews). We rode the kiddie Hippogriff coaster in little wicker baskets, then made our way to Superhero Island (and the magnificent Hulk coaster, which speeds you up to 40 mph in two seconds and shoots you out of a neon-lit tube to a hundred foot drop and a series of corkscrews and inversions. (I dragged Bill back on this one two more times as well – it was especially cool later when evening fell).

We stopped for a little edible but otherwise unremarkable nosh at the only place we could find food that wasn’t pizza or burgers – I had a chicken-topped salad and fries stolen from Bill, with Ben’n’Jerry’s soft serve ice cream cones for dessert – and we wandered some more. I really wanted to go on the Pteranodon fliers in Jurassic Park (essentially little tracked swings suspended 20 feet up), but Bill flatly refused to get in the wiggly things and the wait time was an astounding 2 hours anyway. We took pictures in Seussville, but found ourselves sort of out of rides to go on – all the rest were for wee kiddies (though we hit the Cat in the Hat ride on our way out, once the wait time had dropped under an hour) or got you wet (not quite hot enough to want to walk around in damp, chafing clothes) or spun you nauseatingly or did a free fall drop.

the cornea-searing Seuss Landing

Back at Hogsmeade, we handled Bill’s family shopping now that the lines for the stores had diminished, and stopped to watch a street demonstration of Beauxbaton and Durmstrang students (well, mainly the cute and sweaty Durmstrang boys, who did mock battles with flips in the air and other gravity-defying feats, while the blue-clad girls only danced around waving around fluttering banners…. or at least, that’s all they’d gotten up to by the time we bailed). We took advantage as the crowds thinned near dinnertime to do a couple of repeat rides with the shortened lines, and finally – sticky, sun-toasted, and foot-sore – made our way back to the car and well-deserved lengthy showers at home.

sunset in Hogsmeade….

…and on Hogwarts.